BY Carina Bukuts in Features | 09 DEC 21

Stories We Missed: Rediscovering Werner Düttmann’s West Berlin

Carina Bukuts revisits the city-wide exhibition that celebrated the architects centenary while searching for signs of Berlins future

BY Carina Bukuts in Features | 09 DEC 21

‘Rediscovering Werner Düttmann’s West Berlin’  is part of a series of short essays on the events and trends we missed in our coverage of art and culture in 2021. Read more – and last year’s stories – here.

In Hansaviertel, West Berlin, where there was once only rubble and ruins after the bombings of World War II, modernist buildings now gleam. It’s the 1957 launch of Interbau, an exhibition of urban design organized by the West Berlin Senate, the Association of German Architects and the Federal Ministry of Construction, to which globally renowned modernist architects – including Alvar Aalto, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and Oscar Niemeyer – were invited to propose developments for an area of the city where 300 of 343 buildings had been destroyed. After years under fascist rule, the country’s recently elected politicians were keen to construct a new identity not just for Berlin but for Germany.

One of the 48 participating architects was Werner Düttmann, a German architect and city planner whose name is little known outside of Berlin. This year, to mark his centenary, Berlin’s Brücke Museum initiated the citywide exhibition ‘Werner Düttmann. Building. Berlin’ – one of the best monographic shows on an architect I have seen. Brilliantly curated by museum director Lisa Marei Schmidt, the show not only shed light on an overlooked figure of postwar modernist architecture but also emphasized Düttmann’s crucial role in redefining and reconstructing the city of Berlin.

‘Werner Düttmann. Building. Berlin.’, 2021, exhibition view, Akademie der Künste, Berlin. Courtesy: © Brücke-Museum, Berlin; photograph: Silke Briel

For Interbau, Düttmann designed the beautiful Hansabücherei (Hansa Library, 1956–57), whose low-level construction calls to mind California’s mid-century Case Study houses (1945–66). The library’s large windows face onto a garden courtyard, beyond which lie the landscaped grounds of the Tiergarten public park. Surrounded by towering social-housing complexes designed by Aalto and Gropius, Düttmann’s library is a public building that mimics a private home. The same can be said of his design for the Brücke Museum itself, which opened in 1967. Inspired by the museum’s idyllic natural setting in the Grunewald Forest on the outskirts of Berlin, Düttmann opted for coir flooring, which lends the space a more domestic atmosphere than is commonly found in institutional settings. (When I entered the museum for the first time, I found myself instinctively wanting to remove my shoes.)

Werner Düttmann, view of the patio of Hansabücherei, 1957, blueprint on paper, Architekturmuseum of TU Berlin, Inv. Nr. HH 0502,043 © Katharina Merz, Hans Düttmann 

‘Werner Düttmann. Building. Berlin’ at the Brücke Museum presented a range of archive material offering a closer look at these landmark buildings. What made the exhibition even more impactful was its expansion beyond the walls of the museum through the installation of wooden billboards in front of buildings across the city that Düttmann either designed or supervised in his position as head of the Senate Department for Building and Housing (1960–66). On view throughout the summer, the boards featured information on the architecture as well as archival imagery, documents, plans and drawings. While cycling around Berlin, I encountered these ‘Düttmann markers’ in places where I least expected them (at a roundabout near Ernst-Reuter-Platz in Charlottenburg, for instance), drawing attention to public sites that, ordinarily, few people would stop to consider or know who had designed them.

‘Werner Düttmann. Building. Berlin.’, 2021, exhibition view, Hansabücherei, Berlin. Courtesy: © Brücke-Museum, Berlin; photograph: Silke Briel

The exhibition was accompanied by a comprehensive website featuring an interactive map and recommended city tours that encouraged people to look at familiar places from a fresh perspective. Diving deeper into the website, you could also find video portraits of residents living in Düttmann’s buildings: Norwegian artist Marte Eknæs, for instance, who offered a fascinating tour of her home and studio in the tower blocks at Mehringplatz.

Screenshot of the accompanying website to ‘Werner Düttmann. Building. Berlin.’, Brücke-Museum, 2021, designed by Stan Hema © Brücke-Museum

Alongside other artists, including Anri Sala, Eknæs also contributed to the exhibition’s extensive catalogue. The publication is a testimony to Schmidt’s comprehensive approach to providing a cohesive contemporary retrospective of Düttmann’s work. While the book paints an overall positive picture of the various aspects of his practice – from interior design to the public art commissioned for his buildings – the editors didn’t shy away from including critical voices. For instance, the Kooperative für Darstellungspolitik, a collective investigating how political and cultural issues are displayed in public space, contributed a series of photographs and archival findings that addressed the dominance of Düttmann’s architecture in the cityscape of Berlin. One document they found shows how Düttmann ranked top on a list of judges for architectural competitions held in Berlin between 1957–67, having participated 25 times. Elsewhere, ARCH+ editor Anh-Linh Ngo interviews architect Arno Brandlhuber on the renovation of St. Agnes in Kreuzberg, a brutalist church Düttmann designed in 1967, which gallerist Johann König acquired in 2012 and converted into an exhibition space. A change, as Ngo points out, that doesn’t conform to the practice of historical preservation.

‘Werner Düttmann. Building. Berlin.’, 2021, exhibition view, Brücke-Museum, Berlin. Courtesy: © Brücke-Museum, Berlin; photograph: Silke Briel

In his six years as head of the Senate Department for Building and Housing in Berlin, Düttmann oversaw the construction of 20,000 homes. Now, the city once famous for its affordability finds itself in the midst of a housing crisis: it has never been more difficult to find a place to live in the German capital. While it was purely coincidental that Düttmann’s centenary fell during an election year, with both state and general elections held in September, ‘Werner Düttmann. Building. Berlin’ served as a much-needed reminder that the urban-planning decisions the government makes today will have an enduring impact on future generations.

Main image: Portrait of the architect Werner Düttmann before a party, undated © photograph: Ingeborg Lommatzsch. Pablo Picasso: © Succession Picasso / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021. Thumb: St. Agnes, undated, Akademie der Künste, Berlin, Werner Düttmann archive, Nr. 23 F. 22/37, photograph: Wolf Lücking © Franziska Lücking

Carina Bukuts is associate editor of frieze. She is based in Berlin, Germany.